At the State Department, Sisterhood
By DeNeen L. Brown
In their first public appearance together since the inauguration, first lady Michelle Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton shared a stage today to honor "brave women" from around the globe who have fought to improve the status of women in their home countries.
Obama stood to the right of the lectern as Clinton spoke, her hands folded before her.
"I am especially delighted to thank one person in particular whose presence means a great deal to all of us," Clinton said to applause, "our first lady Michelle Obama."
Clinton turned in Obama's direction.
"Now, I know a little bit about the role," Clinton said to laughter, "that Michelle Obama is filling now. And I have to say that in a very short time she has, through her grace and wisdom, become an inspiration to women and girls not only in the United States but around the world."
The two amicably gave each other enough room and spoke in a manner at once gracious and warm. When it came time for Obama's turn at the podium, she gave Clinton a hug that lasted five long seconds.
"Let me thank Secretary Clinton -- I love saying that.... for that kind introduction. I have said this before, but the woman who is running this department, this big huge effort, has always been such a committed person, friend, supporter, to me," Obama said.
Obama joined Clinton to present the State Department's Award for International Women of Courage to seven women activists, from Afghanistan, Guatemala, Iraq, Malaysia, Niger, Russia and Uzbekistan. The award was created three years ago by then-Secretary Condoleezza Rice. The recipients this year included a former child slave from Niger, an activist who led investigations into military deaths in Russia and a woman trying to stem the tide of deaths of women in Guatemala.
"The women we honor today teach us three very important lessons," Obama told the crowd of more than 300. "One, that as women, we must stand up for ourselves. The second, as women, we must stand up for each other. And finally, as women, we must stand up for justice for all."
The women who stood in a line to her right were each announced: Wazhma Frogh of Afghanistan; Norma Cruz of Guatemala; Mutabar Tadjibayeva of Uzbekistan; Suaad Abbas Salman Allami of Iraq; Veronika Marchenko of Russia; Ambiga Sreenevasan of Malaysia; and Hadizatou Mani of Niger.
The awardees either shook hands with Obama and Clinton or hugged them, depending -- it appeared -- on their culture or comfort level.
Hadizatou Mani from Niger, who was 12 when she was sold into slavery, held her hands together almost limply. Her head was covered by a cream-colored veil trimmed in yellow. She timidly held out her right hand to Obama.
Mani's award recognizes her work with a local NGO in her country to charge the government of Niger with failing to protect her under anti-slavery laws. "It was very difficult to challenge my former master and to speak out when people see you as nothing more than a slave," Mani told the group Anti-Slavery International. "Nobody deserves to be enslaved.... No woman should suffer the way I did."
Mani posed with her award between Clinton and Obama, then walked to the end of the line of women that included Ambiga Sreenevasan, president of the Malaysian Bar Council.
Sreenevasan has fought for religious freedom and women's rights and worked to amend Malaysia's Federal Constitution to make sure that the testimony of women carried the equal weight of men in Shari'a courts. Despite death threats and having a Molotov cocktail thrown at her house, she continues to fight for religious freedom and women's rights.
In Guatemala, activist Norma Cruz has tried to stem the tide of the increasing number of killings of women. As cofounder and director of the Survivors Foundation, Cruz helps hundreds of victims of domestic violence and supports families of women who have been slain. Two years ago, her organization helped investigate and prosecute 30 people who were convicted of murdering women. Women are often targeted by rival gangs as an initiation right in Guatemala, and the women's deaths more often than not go unreported.
Cruz, who has received death threats, told a delegate of the Human Rights Commission, "We are not going to allow one more woman to die."
One awardee was not on stage: Reem Al Numery, a child bride in Yemen who was 12 when she was forced to marry her 30-year-old cousin. Her government would not allow her to attend the ceremony in Washington.
Al Numery's story cast light on the plight of preteen girls in Yemen who are forced to marry, and her fight for a divorce has challenged the Yemeni legal system.
"While my hair was styled for the ceremony, I thought of ways to set fire to my wedding dress," Al Numery recounted her marriage day to American embassy officials, according to materials provided by the State Department. "When I protested, my dad gagged me and tied me up. After the wedding, I tried to kill myself twice."
Al Numery's father will not consent to the divorce and because she is still a minor, a judge declared she must remain married until she is 15, the legal age at which she can make her own decisions.
Posted at 10:59 PM ET on Mar 11, 2009
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